Action Research is the practice of collaborative problem solving in the Education Community. In Action Research, the students (and parents) collaborate with professional educators in solving problems arising in the course of educating students.
This brief Knol is an introduction to the basic idea of Action Research in Education.
Introduction to Action Research in Education
Let’s begin at the very beginning, with the English Wikipedia definition of Action Research:
|“||Action research is a reflective process of progressive problem solving led by individuals working with others in teams or as part of a “community of practice” to improve the way they address issues and solve problems. Action research can also be undertaken by larger organizations or institutions, assisted or guided by professional researchers, with the aim of improving their strategies, practices, and knowledge of the environments within which they practice.||”|
The first thing to note is that the enterprise is embedded in a “community of practice” where everyone is working cooperatively and collaboratively as a team with a common goal (e.g. improvement of a problematic situation). The problem-solving process includes all stakeholders.
Contrast that with “Ivory Tower” research, where the researcher is distant and aloof from the subject of the research, intentionally minimizing the degree of contact or interference with the subject. A good example is traditional Cultural Anthropology where the researcher tries to minimize any perturbations of the culture being studied as a result of his or her presence. The opposite of “hands off” Anthropological study would be the religious zealot or missionary who actively tries to transform a culture without necessarily understanding or describing it scientifically, just the way it is. In Action Research, the researcher would be working cooperatively with the subjects to achieve a joint goal of solving the recognized problems of the community or system being studied.
Now let’s drill down a notch and look at the definition of Action Research on Wikiversity.
|“||Action research is essentially research through action. It is usually a collaborative activity — involving input from people who are likely to be affected by the research — but this is not strictly necessary. Action research is about changing an environment, system, or practice, and learning about this context through changing it. To quote action research’s instigator Kurt Lewin: “If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.” This kind of work is not simply about changing, but also improving an environment. As John Elliott says, action research is “the study of a social situation with a view to improving the quality of action within it” (Elliott, p. 69).||“|
So the “action” part means that the system being studied is (hopefully) going to be improved in the process, and this improvement is an express goal. Moreover the “inhabitants” of the system embrace this goal and cooperate and collaborate in the enterprise (or at least don’t fight against it). In medicine, the doctor tries to recruit the cooperation of the patient as much as possible, but if the patient is too weak, the doctor proceeds unilaterally.
When I was studying Systems Theory at Stanford, there was yet another name for this kind of research. There (and elsewhere in management literature) it’s called Operations Research. In the case of Operations Research, the subject is usually an organization or a business. The business operations are studied with a view toward improving them (or even optimizing them, if possible).
Here is yet another definition, from a seminal 1981 paper by my neighbor, Jerry Pine, who just retired as Dean of the Boston College School of Education:
|“||As a collaborative process, action research begins when educational researchers, university faculty, and teachers assist each other in developing the skills to identify and conceptualize problems. The fundamental principle of collaborative research is that the research process is based on a system of discussion, investigation, and analysis in which the researched are as much a part of the process as the researcher. Teachers, working with researchers in school situations, are in a position to observe and document actual life situations. A proposal is made for the formation of a collaborative action research team, consisting of undergraduate education students, interns, classroom teachers, and university faculty. An exploration of the research potential open to this team is made.||“|
Clearly there are degrees of cooperation and participation which vary with the level of energy, enthusiasm, and trust. Spiritual torpor, cynicism, and wariness can become serious obstacles that undermine the teamwork in a project employing Action Research. Sometimes a leader has to carry the ball a long ways unassisted before the flagging spirits of others are revived. From this observation comes the admonition, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
In Action Research, the goal is to empower every stakeholder to be part of the solution.
I’m hardly an expert on the subject of Action Research. But my neighbor, the late Jerry Pine, was an expert on the subject. His recent book on Teacher Action Research, summarizes three decades of scholarly research on the subject.
Dealing with lost, reluctant, or recalcitrant “collaborators”
Occasionally someone shows up who acts like an anchor, a drag on progress. This might be a person who is uncomfortable if other members of the team are racing ahead. This might be the “I’m from Missouri” type who requires a demonstration of every concept, and who is skeptical of anything they don’t yet fully understand.
For these individuals (and there will always be some), theory and analysis must give way at times to active demonstrations, ranging from multimedia skits and sketches to full blown psychodrama. I’ve never been a fan of psychodrama, but sometimes that’s what it takes. I’ve occasionally seen a nominal “liminal social drama” morph into a lunatic psychodrama and then flower into something that would rival the Passion Story in terms of operatic depth and profundity. It’s no accident that the original Passion Story involved the introduction of a New Covenant into the local culture.
The difficulty in leading others out of the woods arises when 1) one isn’t entirely confidant which pathway is best, and 2) the others don’t trust their would-be guide to successfully lead them out of the woody swamp into the clearing. Then one has to do something called “leading from behind” which is quite an art.